Merce Cunningham’s gift
We are re-posting material relating to Merce Cunningham upon the occassion of his death, July 26, 2009: this reminiscence and review of Merce Cunningham Dance Company came to MASS MoCA that originally were published on NewBerkshire.com in 2000.
The Greenwich Village artists’ scene of the 1940s, as recalled by Frances Benn Hall.
When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1941, I was so eager to dash off to seek fame and fortune in the arts world of Greenwich Village that I boarded the first train for Manhattan and told the college to mail me my diploma.
Getting a job, any job, proved difficult. I finally found a lowly clerical one in the garment district. It paid $17 a week – all my MA in theatre was worth at that time, and the job only obtained when I said I could give Sinclair Lewis as a local reference.
(During the previous Fall at college, I had been one of a group of fifteen to whom he taught creative writing. Only one member of our class seems to have achieved literary fame in later life; Howard Moss was for years poetry editor of The New Yorker.)
In those lean years, The Village still thronged with starving artists. Finding housing was easy. I quickly moved into the front room of a basement apartment on West 13th Street where my rent was $6.00 a week. I shared the kitchen and bath with two dancers from Martha Graham’s group. One had a tiny maid’s room in the back, and the other, Merce Cunningham, slept on a cot in the communal kitchen. Their weekly rent was even lower than mine.
Merce was already honored in the dance world and that Spring was performing the solo “Dear March Come In”; in Graham’s Letter to the World, but was not yet world famous as he would become, and thus as needy as the rest of us. He worked at his dancing like a demon, but he did find time to join, with me, a Village theatre group called The Bendukov Theatre Studio, to which we went evenings to work on, but never have money to produce, exotic plays such as Cummings’ him and Byron’s Cain.
Food was a big problem, and what little our pooled pittances could afford was stored in a small wooden ice-box in the kitchen to which the ice-man automatically came. However, it got to the point where his bill had mounted alarmingly, and because we could not pay it, we avoided meeting him. This had a negative side in that he kept delivering ice even when there was no food in the box.
I can remember standing in the kitchen beside Merce as he emptied the water from the drip pan into the sink and sadly remarked, “There goes another quarter.” In that long-ago Manhattan where a nickel was all one needed for the subway or for a boat ride across the harbor from the Battery to Staten Island, a quarter was not treated lightly.
Since I had a “real” job, I had more ready cash, meager though it was, than Merce usually had. However, once, rather hurriedly, he thrust a dollar bill at me and said, “Buy yourself something frivolous,” before he loped off to rehearsal in Martha’s studio over in a loft just north of Washington Square.
I took my dollar, boarded the 7th Avenue subway at the corner of West 12th, got off at Macys where in the basement bookstore I bought my first copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It now sits proudly among the three long shelves of Joyce books on my living room wall among several other copies of Ulysses I have since acquired. But it remains my favorite one because on the fly leaf I wrote the date and the words, “Something frivolous from Merce.”
Had I become the great writer Lewis had encouraged me to try to be, I would know that the above paragraph is my conclusion. However, I must add a coda to round out the picture.
My large front room also, when I was not sleeping in it, served us as a communal living room, and we sometimes held parties there. One night there was such a party at which I was not present. When I returned around midnight, the party had wound down, and the stragglers left so I could go to bed.
They had been having a bit wilder time than usual, and although none of my personal belongings were ever disturbed, that evening a young artist in his glee had painted a mural on my ceiling. It was not unattractive. I remember thinking it really quite good. It was a great angel with outstretched wings that covered most of the ceiling. I felt I could sleep with that angel hovering over me and went to bed.
However, my alarm woke me to a startling and embarrassing discovery. Lying in my bed, staring at the ceiling changed my perspective. That so innocent-seeming angel had been so painted that a foot-long pipe, relic of some long-ago light fixture, had become a giant phallus.
Life among the artists had become too much for me. After work that day, I found a room on West 12th Street with a nosy and prudish landlady, very fussy about keys and using the pay phone in the hall after 8 PM, but willing to rent me a room with which I could cope.
It was only recently, discussing those days with a Graham dancer who was present at that long-ago party, that I was reminded of a fact that I had forgotten: The young artist was named Robert Motherwell.